Abortion and Ruined Relationships


Eighteen years after her abortion, Sally described herself as an angry, bitter person. Her bereavement had been stalled in the anger stage for nearly two decades. She was not able to move forward through the stages of grief without professional help.

Memories of my abortion were triggered by driving past the abortion clinic. Or whenever I saw "stop abortion" bumper stickers. I also got ticked with all my boyfriend's letters of apology. Whenever he sent me a letter, I wanted to shred it in a million pieces and stick it up his ---!

It is not uncommon for traumatized women and men to bury their grief under stockpiles of tremendous rage. Sally's anger, for example, provided an outlet for emotion that kept her from feeling her own pain. It was easier for her to become infuriated with reminders of trauma than to directly feel the pain over her loss.

For some women, the anger that arises from an abortion may fuel activism or even fanaticism into seemingly unrelated, emotionally charged causes, such as human rights, animal rights, or religious issues. By channeling their anger into such activism, they discover ways to act out their anger in a forum that is removed from, but symbolic of, their abortion related trauma. Micki, for example, developed a deep suspicion of men's motives after her abortion, which drove her to become an outspoken feminist and political activist.

Because of my abortion, an age of innocence was lost. I became more apt to believe in the innate evil of man instead of goodness. Underneath, I was an angry, bitter person and replaced my sadness and quiet with hatred and animosity. I felt there was nothing to look forward to in my life, that the best years were already behind me and I could never completely trust or be trusted again. In short, my previous life as I knew it was over and instead replaced with an antagonistic life through which I could express rage and hostility My words were always sharp and cutting. In everything, I was fighting ... always trying to fight back.

Fighting for the life of her child was something that Micki was unable to do at the time of her abortion. The fighting attitude she adopted for herself afterwards was, in some way, an attempt to avoid and deny the submissive aspect of her younger self, which had led her to such grief. Every project she began or sentiment she offered was done in a defensive, mistrusting fashion. She was certain that everyone was out to take something from her, and continually re experiencing the emotional threat and fear of losing something valuable to others, just as she had lost her child.

Anger can also arise when women who are prepared to grieve discover that those around them refuse to acknowledge their grief For example, when Grace discovered she was pregnant, her husband badgered her to "get rid of it." When Grace and her husband sought marital counseling after the abortion, their psychologist refused to acknowledge the grief and betrayal she felt about the abortion and told her to "stop acting like a victim." This rejection of her grief compelled Grace to withdraw into an isolated world that no one could penetrate. She remained depressed, anxious, and fearful of future losses.

The marital counseling was a complete failure. Their marriage deteriorated into a contemptuous relationship where both parties taunted and ridiculed each other. Frequently, they engaged in physical violence and outbursts of uncontrollable rage. Grace would often throw china dishes, glassware, and other expensive items at her husband. After the fights, her husband would storm out of the house, leaving Grace alone amid the shattered remains of their valuable possessions. These scenes recreated the traumatic sense of abandonment and destruction associated with her abortion. The shards of glass and ceramic in which she stood mimicked the chaos in her broken heart. As with her mistimed pregnancy, she was left alone to clean up the mess and "get rid of it."

Patterns of anger and violence can also infect later relationships, as is seen in the case of Margie.

At the time of my abortion, I wanted to please my future husband and my parents so they would continue to love me. I didn't consider the child or myself. I had wanted to get married - we even had the blood test and license - but he came up with the four hundred dollars needed for the abortion.

We got married later. I had a lot of angry feelings toward him but stuffed them most of the time. Toward the end of our marriage, they were coming out all the time. I would lash out verbally and sometimes physically. This trait carried over into my second and third marriage. I continually feel that I am being emotionally violated by not having my feelings considered.

People like Margie may reenact the trauma of violation and abandonment by getting themselves into unstable relationships. These relationships may be sought to satisfy profound needs for protection and nurturing, yet at the same time be plagued by a fear of abandonment or deception that can become self fulfilling.

For those lucky enough to identify the root of their trauma, however, healing and recovery is possible. But first they must work through their feelings of loss, grief, and anger. Releasing one's anger is a key step on the path to healing, as Sharon discovered.

I felt enraged at my boyfriend for pressuring me. I also felt angry at the people who worked in the clinic. I felt that I had been profoundly cheated. I blamed my boyfriend for my negative feelings about myself. Eventually I realized that I was mostly angry at myself for not listening to my conscience. I wish I had listened to myself. Once I stopped blaming everybody, my grief took total control. It was the most painful experience, but one that unlocked me from the prison of anger and rage. I have forgiven myself and others, and for the first time in a very long time, I have peace.

Courtney's Tangled Web

Courtney's unique story reflects aspects of the three subjects we have just covered: the loss of innocence, keeping the baby alive, and toxic anger. Courtney's struggle with these issues entangled her in behavior and beliefs that blurred the lines between reality and fantasy.

Courtney was 19 at the time of her first abortion. She loved Bob, and when she discovered she was pregnant, she secretly hoped he would want to marry her and raise their baby. Bob made it unmistakably clear that he did not welcome the idea of having a baby. Hurt, rejected, and angry, Courtney decided to abort. Bob took the news with a sigh of relief. Despite her anger and rage with Bob, she continued to date him in an attempt to hold onto the lost pregnancy through the proxy of their relationship. Nine months later, history repeated itself and Courtney became pregnant a second time.

Before the second pregnancy, however, Courtney had also begun to secretly date Justin. He was sensitive, concerned about her feelings, and protective of her. Since she had also been sexually intimate with him, she deceptively told Justin that the baby growing inside her was his child. Then she had a second abortion. She did this because she felt she had a more supportive relationship with Justin, so she believed he would be more willing to listen to her grief and repressed feelings about the loss her abortions entailed. After the abortion, Courtney felt disgusted with herself, extremely depressed, and very anxious. Justin was aware of her pain after the abortion and did his best to comfort her. He encouraged Courtney to get counseling.

As Courtney approached what would have been her due date, she became even more depressed and anxious. She had frequent thoughts of suicide and often fantasized about getting pregnant again. Although Justin was not the father of her aborted baby, Courtney continued to let him believe he was responsible. She felt great satisfaction when he talked of his guilt over what had happened.

Courtney targeted much anger and resentment at Justin as a punishment, while at the same time clinging to him. She was mistrustful and jealous of any contact he had with other women. Justin, out of a sense of guilt and responsibility, remained in the deteriorating relationship with the hope of helping Courtney.

Courtney's possessive accusations finally served the ultimate but unconscious goal of distancing Justin to the point where he rejected her. Immediately after the breakup, however, Courtney informed Justin she was pregnant by him again. Driven to recreate the tragedy, Courtney's lie began to turn into an elaborate fantasy that became very real to her. Through the means of her imagined pregnancy, she blamed Justin for abandoning her, wanting her to have an abortion, and lying to her about his commitment and love. She egged him on by offering another abortion as a possible solution to their problem.

Even though Justin was aware of how much pain the last abortion had caused Courtney, he continued to tell her that it was her choice and he would support any decision she made. One night Justin handed her $400 to cover any expenses she might have. This made her even more angry because this again placed all the responsibility for the decision upon her.

What Courtney really wanted to hear was that Justin loved her and would never want her to go through that kind of pain again. She needed him to be there for her in having this baby, the fruit of their love, who really existed only in Courtney's mind.

Her rage at Justin's failure to oppose the abortion compelled her to become even more antagonistic. She informed Justin that even if she kept the baby she would not let him see the child. He begged her not to do that, as he had grown up in a home without a father and had always vowed to be active and involved if he had a child. Courtney began to feel some power and continued in her quest to hurt him. She informed Justin that if their child ever inquired about him she would give the child the $400 and instruct him to go find his father. She would inform her son that this was the money his father had given her in order to kill him as a fetus.

Courtney's attempts to convey the reality of how she experienced abortion were quite desperate. Even though the pregnancy was a fantasy, her psychic trauma drove her to invent a situation in which she could ascribe to Justin all her own rage and grief from the previous abortions—rage and grief that had no outlet and were driving her mad. The line between fantasy and reality became increasingly obscured. Courtney deluded herself into believing that she actually was pregnant and began to act out a repetition of the previous abortions.

Courtney's stress prompted her to make an appointment for a third abortion. She asked Justin to come and be with her. Trying hard to be supportive but in all the wrong ways, he agreed to meet her at the clinic. When Courtney never showed up, he became angry and confused.

They set up another appointment. That time Justin did not attend. Later that night a friend of Courtney's, going along with the traumatic reenactment, called Justin to inform him that the abortion had been botched and Courtney was still pregnant.

Throughout the following months Courtney continued to imagine that she was still pregnant. She often daydreamed about her expanding waistline. She wore large plaid jumpers and tops with big bows, the distinguishing hallmark of expectant maternity. Maintaining the illusion protected her from dealing with the grief born of an empty womb.

Courtney's story is a painful example of complicated mourning. Her fantasies, however bizarre, were quite functional as an attempt to work through her loss. The fictional pregnancy allowed Courtney to once again experience the threat of her loss and to express the unresolved rage, sorrow, grief, panic, and shame that arose from her two prior abortions. The imaginary pregnancy and her "escape" from the abortion also served to reconnect Courtney with her lost children and demonstrate protectiveness, love, and an intense longing for them. As the fantasy drama progressed, Courtney began to restore her lost maternal identity and even to see herself as a heroine protecting her imaginary child, bravely carrying her baby to term without the man who had rejected her. Through this fantasy she was able to place all of the blame for her pain on Justin and thereby deny, repress, or avoid aspects of the loss, pain, and guilt associated with her past abortions. Her entire fantasy was designed to reconstruct the tragedy and gain mastery over it. It was a reenactment through which she desperately sought to create a happy ending that would erase the pain of her past abortions. In the end, all she wanted was a baby.

Her denial and projection of guilt and rage were quite powerful. Courtney was a sensitive, caring young woman who deeply yearned for someone special to love and cherish her. She had always loved children and her abortions had deeply wounded her maternal nature. Once her denial could no longer sustain itself through this complicated fantasy, her grief overwhelmed her. She cried for hours, curled up in a fetal position, and grieved the loss of her two children and the replacement pregnancy that was only a fantasy. Fortunately, through supportive counseling, Courtney was finally able to face reality and grieve her losses while simultaneously accepting responsibility for everything that had happened.

Several years after this extraordinary soap opera, Courtney came again for counseling. She recalled the acceptance and understanding that had enabled her to understand her crazy behavior, recover from the experience of her abortions, and graduate from nursing school. At this time in her life, she was engaged to a loving man who had weathered her relentless testing of his unconditional love. Courtney recognized quickly that the testing was born of her insecurities and past traumas. With the help of additional counseling, she worked hard to accept responsibility for her feelings and learned how to avoid dragging the distrust and pain involved in her past relationships into her future.

Abortion and Sexual Dysfunctions

The destruction of a child conceived in lovemaking can rebound against a woman's sexual identity. For many post abortive women, the thought of future sexual encounters can become disturbing or even abhorrent. On a conscious or unconscious level, sex can be a connector to unresolved abortion trauma. For some, even the sexual advances of a man they deeply love can trigger unexplainable feelings of revulsion, anger, grief, insecurity, or betrayal. Ginny shared the difficulties and grief that surfaced after her abortion:

I remember coming home after the abortion and crying my eyes out. Tears were streaming from my face and staining a white silk coverlet on my bed. I also remember a discharge of white milk coming from both breasts. My feeling was that my entire body was crying . . . teardrops of milk seeping from my bosoms.

I wept for days and thought I could no longer bear the agony. I felt like I had defiled my body. I was not using it properly. I vowed right then and there that I would never be with a man again. I did not want anyone to come near me. I reasoned that all men were horrible. I always connected that despicable experience to my physical and sexual self. I was ashamed of my breasts, my body and my sexuality . . . and for a long time I absolutely hated men.

Although years later I did marry, I had major sexual problems. I felt that sex was another shameful duty I had to endure. It was always dreadfully painful. I could not stand sex. Eventually I got divorced and vowed once again to be alone.

Because sex is so closely connected to abortion, some women cope with sex the same way they coped with their abortion, by becoming "numb" or "not present." For example, Tanya's loss of interest in sexual intimacy was a direct result of her traumatic abortion. During her abortion, she had dissociated (disconnected) from the experience. Her body was there, but her mind had split off from the emotional experience of the event. After her abortion, Tanya began to react in the same disconnected way to sex.

The thought of sex made me sick! I just wanted to get it over with and be left alone. When we did have sex, I felt nothing. There was no pleasure, no anything. I was completely numb.

Tanya continued to experience sexual numbing and lack of interest for many years. Her feelings about sex perfectly mirrored her feelings at the time of her abortion, when she anxiously waited to "get it over with and be left alone."

Other women may translate their fears about abortion into a dread of sexual intimacy. This was Janet's experience:

It was hard for me to separate sex from abortion. Every time I had sex I feared that I would end up having another abortion. I wanted nothing to do with sex and I hated anyone who asked me for it.

Corrie's experience was similar and led to a rejection of her fertility, her sexuality, and eventually her husband.

After my abortion I never wanted to be pregnant again. I became uninterested in sexual relations with my husband. Eventually we divorced. There was nothing to tie us together: no kids, no sex. I hated both.

Negative attitudes about sexual relations can be carried into a subsequent marriage. If the couple does not quickly identify the source of the frigidity, the anxiety and disappointments that arise can seriously impact their marriage. According to Bernice:

After my abortion I quit having sex. I wasn't noble or anything . . . I just didn't "like" it anymore. When I got married, my honeymoon night was not what it should have been. I was trying to do my best, or do my job, whatever you want to call it. But it wasn't the joyful exchange of love that it's supposed to be. As you might imagine, if the honeymoon night was like that, the time following didn't exactly get any better. My coolness and lack of interest turned my husband off. Our marriage just went downhill.

For some women, abortion curdles all heterosexual passion. Men who abandon are branded as sexual aggressors, creeps, jerks, no good, lousy and stupid. Some women admittedly develop inclinations toward lesbian lifestyles after such rejection and the subsequent abortions. Through sexual relationships with other women, the danger of repeating the tragedy of abortion is no longer a threat. Kyra explained how her abortion led to her adopting gay practices:

After my abortions I began to hate men. I came to realize the incredible selfishness and self centeredness of each of the men I had ever attempted to love. There seemed to be nothing in return for me. I'm sick of not having my needs met. I find women to be more compassionate and caring, more sensitive to my real needs as a woman. I don't think I could ever trust a man in another relationship. Men completely turn me off.

Numerous studies have found that sexual dysfunctions are common following an abortion.5 In the Elliot Institute survey, 58 percent of the women surveyed reported a loss of pleasure from sexual intercourse following their abortions, and 47 percent reported developing an aversion to sexual intercourse or becoming sexually unresponsive. In addition, a third of the women surveyed reported increased pain during intercourse.

For some, the rejection of their sexuality and reproductive potential is acted out through the self punishing use of surgical sterilization. In the Elliot Institute survey, one in 12 women reported having themselves sterilized to avoid the risk of undergoing another abortion. This fear can be so great that even very young women will sacrifice their desire for future children just to be spared the risk of having another abortion. Such was the case of Valerie, who was only 19 when she had a tubal ligation.

I was so afraid of becoming pregnant. I could not risk being in a situation where I might need another abortion. I refused to kill another baby, so I had myself sterilized.

Valerie's pain was so deep that she could not imagine ever being healed from her traumatic abortion experience. Her need to protect herself from another traumatic abortion overwhelmed her long term desire to be a mother.

As her life went forward, Valerie regretted the impulsiveness of both her decision to abort and her decision to have herself sterilized. Each time she encountered another woman's child who touched her maternal center, her hasty decisions, both born out of irrational fears, came back to haunt her.

Children are so precious. I would give the world to undo my past. I changed my body forever, for the sake of someone else . . . so he could keep on having sex . . . so that I could avoid another abortion. But my abortion was so traumatic for me. I chose to have my tubes tied rather than ever be in that situation again.

Valerie's decision to have herself sterilized served both to protect herself from another abortion and to punish herself for her abortion. Unfortunately, her doctor was willing to perform a permanent, life-altering sterilization on her without screening for psychological issues that were distorting her decision making process. This doctor's negligence was even more unconscionable given the fact that Valerie was so young and had no children. By the time she found emotional healing and her true desire to have children was restored, it was too late. In effect, her one abortion ended up costing her all of her children.

Healing Relationships

This chapter has examined the impact of traumatic abortion experiences on intimacy, sexuality, and communication in personal relationships. By intimacy, I am not referring to the erotic and sensual familiarity embodied through passion. One of the basic premises for intimacy is authentic and deep communication. It implies the freedom to be who you are in a relationship. Being "who you are" entails the ability to talk frankly about values that are important to you.

People who are authentically intimate in their relationships can take a strong position on where they stand on important emotional issues, desires, hopes, and dreams. They are willing to take risks, communicate their needs, and express their fears. They don't wait for their partners to read their minds or decipher their body language. They are capable of setting boundaries and clarifying what is both acceptable and unacceptable in their relationships. Such partnerships do not permit silence, sacrifice, or betrayal of the self. True intimacy gives a person permission to be vulnerable and dependent as well as capable and responsible.

Couples whose relationships have been damaged by abortion and who both desire to work through the loss can still grow tremendously in their intimacy and love for one another. Our Rachel's Vineyard programs for post abortion healing are attended not only by individual women and men, but also by couples. Many couples come to grieve abortions they had during courtship or early in their marriage. Some attend as couples even when only one of the partners has been involved in a past abortion. In these cases, the supporting partner is there to better understand and share in the grief and healing process of the other. The painful but rewarding journey of post abortion healing can result in many blessings for a marriage, especially when the process is shared. By jointly participating in the process, couples often discover an increase in communication skills and renewed emotional and sexual intimacy. Adrienne and her husband, for example, experienced profound healing on a weekend retreat. After the weekend was over, they wrote:

Through Rachel's Vineyard we had a safe, loving, nurturing environment to share all our guilt, shame, fear, pain and anger. A place to know that we are not alone and to understand and resolve our emotions. A place to find healing for the old infected internal wounds. We left the retreat knowing that God loves us and forgives us for aborting our children. We were able to validate our children's lives and mourn their deaths. Most importantly we left with our marriage intact; finally trusting each other for the first time. I personally promised our children that their lives were not taken in vain. Each and every mother and father of an aborted child needs to know that there is hope, healing, forgiveness and peace for them, too.

Another woman, Melissa, stated that one of the unanticipated results of going through the healing retreat together with her husband was an immediate increase in their sexual passion.

I was shocked at the intense level of erotic desire that Mark and I felt for each other. We were like teenagers in love! Our sex life made a 1 80 degree turnaround. I found myself feeling an incredible love for him . . . a love I never dreamed possible. It was deep and honest.

It meant so much for me to see Mark bare his soul, his grief, his feelings over what we had gone through. It restored my faith in him as a man to hear him tell me how sorry he was, and recognizing how much this experience had hurt me. I also needed to hear how the abortion affected him. Once he was vulnerable, I felt like I could forgive him. We are rediscovering each other, and there is so much beauty in our marriage. I finally feel like he is not only a friend, but an incredible lover.

For others, the healing of their abortion experience helps them break free of destructive relationship patterns. They are no longer compelled to become involved in promiscuous, abusive, or shallow relationships. Having discovered and healed their inner selves, they are now better prepared to discover and respect another person who will respect and honor them in turn.

Human beings do not survive well as disembodied egos. Abortion creates an acute separation reaction that, on a variety of levels, divides women and men from each other, their aborted children, their families, their community, and God. Post abortion healing is effective because it restores connections and reconstructs the value of one's traditions and inner beliefs. Through healing, despair gives way to hope, isolation gives way to connectedness, and hatred of others and self gives way to the capacity and desire for authentic, self giving love.


1 Herman, Trauma and Recovery, op. cit. (ch. 8, no. 5) 51. [Back]

2 Belsey et al., "Predictive Factors in Emotional Response to Abortion," op. cit (ch. 3, no. 2). [Back]

3 Bracken and Kasl, "First and Repeat Abortions," op. cit. (ch. 11, no. 1). [Back]

4 J.R. Cougle, D.C. Reardon and P.K. Coleman, "Depression associated with abortion and childbirth: A long term analysis of the NLSY cohort," Arch. Women's Mental Health 3(4) Suppl. 2:105 (2001). [Back]

5 Belsey, op. cit. (ch. 16, no. 2) 71-82; David H. Sherman et al, "The Abortion Experience in Private Practice," in Women and Loss: Psychobiological Perspectives, eds. William F. Finn et. al., The Foundation of Thanatology Series, vol. 3 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985) 98-107; Anne Speckhard, Psycho Social Stress Following Abortion (Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1987); Dennis A. Bagarozzi, "Post Traumatic Stress Disorders in Women Following Abortion: Some Considerations and Implications for Marital/Couple Therapy," International Journal of Family and Marriage 1:51 68 (1993); Janet Mattinson, "The Effects of Abortion on Marriage," in Abortion: Medical Progress and Social Implications (Ciba Foundation Symposium, 1995) 165-177; Victor Calef, "The Hostility of Parents to Children," op. cit. (ch. 8, no. 3). [Back]

Additional Resources on Post-Abortion Issues

  1. Forbidden Grief by Theresa Burke and David C. Reardon
  2. Making Abortion Rare by David C. Reardon
  3. The Jericho Plan by David C. Reardon
  4. Victims and Victors by David C. Reardon et alii
  5. Aborted Women, Silent No More by David C. Reardon

Available through Acorn Books at 1-888-412-2676
Acorn Books,
PO Box 7348
Springfield, IL. 62791

Theresa Burke, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and founder of Rachel's Vineyard, a post-abortion training and healing ministry that annually serves thousands of women and couples throughout North America and overseas.

David C. Reardon, Ph.D., is one of the nations's leading researchers and authors on post-abortion issues and the founding director of the Elliot Institute.

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